Mozart: Mass in C minor, K427 (Great)

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Mass in C minor, K427 (Great)
PERFORMER: Patricia Petibon, Lynne Dawson (soprano), Joseph Cornwell (ten), Alan Ewing (bass); Les Arts Florissants, Les Sacqueboutiers de Toulouse/William Christie
CATALOGUE NO: 3984-26093-2
Of the various mysteries that surround the C minor Mass, perhaps the most puzzling is why Mozart never completed it. The suggestion by his early biographer Nissen that Mozart composed the Mass to celebrate the birth of his and Constanze’s first child, Raimund, has generally been dismissed (and there are good reasons for doing so), yet Raimund’s death a few months later, while his parents were away in Salzburg, at least offers a plausible explanation for Mozart’s disinclination to finish the work.

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We do know that the Mass was performed only once, on 26 October 1783 in Salzburg, where Mozart and Constanze were visiting family; that Constanze sang the solo soprano part; and that the performance comprised the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, since Mozart had neither completed the Credo nor begun the Agnus Dei. Even in this unfinished state, the Mass is arguably his finest religious work: he brilliantly juxtaposes old-style choral fugues (the result of studying Bach and Handel) with contemporary Italianate arias, and balances feelings of profound gravitas (Qui tollis) with both ceremonial grandeur (Cum Sancto Spiritu) and flights of radiant joy (Et incarnatus est).

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William Christie’s version is elegantly shaped and polished, with springy rhythms, powerful, crisply articulated choruses and flowing solo voices. Nevertheless, Christopher Hogwood’s 1988 recording remains my benchmark. He uses boy trebles in the choruses; his soloists are peerless, with Arleen Auger absolutely ravishing; and though he sounds at times less stylish than Christie, Hogwood plumbs the music’s emotional core to uniquely expressive effect. Graham Lock